With so much at stake across so many fronts, all eyes are on Democratic leadership in Congress. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) currently ranks third in the Senate’s Democratic leadership, and she was recently appointed as chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, a body that will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the pandemic recovery over the months and years ahead. As part of the Indivisible Town Hall series, produced by the Washington Indivisible Network and the Washington State Indivisible Podcast, Sen. Murray joined host Stephan Cox on Feb. 18, 2021, to discuss pending bills soon to be before the Senate, including the COVID relief bill and the voting rights bill. She also offered reflections on the efficacy of bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate and the possibility of removing the filibuster, should efforts at bipartisanship fail. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stephan Cox: First and foremost, we want to say how relieved and grateful we are for your safety during the Capitol insurrection on January 6th. A lot of us would like to see accountability for the members of the House and Senate who may have instigated or encouraged this insurrection. What are your thoughts?
Sen. Patty Murray: I think it’s so important that we hold everyone accountable. This was a group of people inspired by the president of the United States and some of his top people to take over our country — our democracy — by brute force. We have got to speak out against this. Obviously, we didn’t have the votes to impeach him, but we need to hold everyone accountable. I think we have to step back and ask what led to this. What were the underlying causes, from the information/disinformation that we are all subject to today, to the incredible lies that past-president Trump put forward? We need to have a very honest conversation with ourselves in this country about what we want to be in the future. Integral to that is the Republican Party asking themselves who they want to be and what they want to fight for in the future.
SC: We know that 70% of rank and file Republicans still believe the Big Lie, that the election was stolen. Most members of Congress have refused to say otherwise. Are you concerned about the state of the GOP as a governing partner right now?
PM: Yes, I am. As all of you know, some of the most lasting things we have done in the past were done in a bipartisan way, such as when I worked with Paul Ryan and we did a budget agreement at a time when the federal government was shut down; or when Lamar Alexander and I passed a replacement for No Child Left Behind, which wasn’t working for K-12 education; or when I worked with Senator Ted Kennedy when I first came to Congress to pass the first family leave law, which passed with Republican votes. The most enduring policies require working with the other party to get them done. Otherwise they’re just overturned at every election. So you need people from both sides to be willing partners in conversation. And I’m deeply concerned that the Republican Party has placed their identity in one man’s very loud voice, which expresses a lot of disinformation and has a large following and is backed up by a lot of media. The Republican Party needs to look at themselves and ask, are we a party of democracy, or are we a party of Trump?
SC: I want to shift over and talk about President Biden’s work on the $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package. You just did an event with Vice President Harris and other women leaders to highlight priorities in the rescue plan that would specifically help women recover from the pandemic. We’ve heard about the terrible jobless numbers for women right now. What is being proposed?
PM: Thank you for asking that. The people who have really borne the brunt of this pandemic and its economic fallout are women, and particularly women of color. We know now that three million women have stepped out of the workforce. It’s impossible to go to work, teach your children at home, manage the stress of the pandemic, and be able to survive. If we want people to go back to work and get their kids in school, we need to deal with child care. This COVID package makes incredible progress on that front. We are making sure we have tax credits for families with children so we can lift our kids out of poverty and give them the support they need. This COVID package is critically important for everyone, but women have borne the brunt of the pandemic across the country, especially women of color. I think Vice President Harris said this morning that everybody wants to return to normal. Absolutely we want to hug our grandkids again, we want to get our kids in school, we want to go to work, and just be normal. But normal is not good enough. This pandemic has shown us clearly and visibly the problems already present in our society before this pandemic hit, problems relating to health care, education, child care, paid family leave. We need to make things better than what “normal” was before if we want to survive the next pandemic.
SC: You are a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 51, which would grant statehood to Washington D.C. What do you think are the chances of passing this bill?
PM: Obviously, as a country if we are going to say our votes and our voices are what keep this democracy moving forward, making sure that every citizen has a vote and a voice is important. D.C. statehood is a critical part of that. We just got the majority a few weeks ago and everybody has a lot of priorities, from COVID on. But we need to make sure that we can move forward in this time on that critical issue.
SC: This leads into another bill, the For the People Act, HR 1. This would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, limit gerrymandering, and so much more. As you know, there is a companion bill in the Senate, SB 1. People are very, very worried because they see state legislatures already moving to restrict voting rights and gerrymandering districts. Republicans are projecting that they might be able to win midterm elections through gerrymandering alone. How do you see the stakes of this moment for Democrats, and really, for democracy?
PM: The stakes are huge, bigger than I can remember at any other point in my lifetime. The insurrection at the Capitol involved people using brute force rather than votes. That’s come from a movement that knows they don’t have the majority. So in order to win, they’re doing everything they can to suppress votes. The [John Lewis] Voting Rights Act is absolutely critical to moving forward. We have to have our eye on the ball. In the last election a major effort was undertaken in Georgia and other states to make sure that people got out to vote, and that they knew where to vote. It was a huge people effort. We have to keep that up and we have to use our voices to remind people what a democracy is. As a country who has espoused democracy worldwide and sent members of Congress to other countries to ensure democratic elections, we need to start at home. We need to voice this as one of our number one priorities. The insurrectionists didn’t go home saying, “Oh gosh, we lost.” They walked away saying they won! They were jubilant, and they’re going to continue these tactics.
SC: Bills for D.C. statehood and voting rights are likely going to get shut down in the Senate because they require at least 10 GOP votes. We know from Trump’s acquittal that that’s unlikely to happen, so I want to ask you about the filibuster. In October you told the Seattle Times that you would not rule out getting rid of the filibuster if the Democrats won back the majority. What is your thinking now?
PM: Again, the best legislation is achieved when you work with people of both parties. When you both own something, it’s much more durable, long lasting, and effective for more people. But I think we are all frustrated right now with the unwillingness of GOP legislators to listen and be a part of these efforts. You can’t have a compromise unless somebody participates. Fortunately, I have more and more Republican senators saying to me, “You know, I don’t like where we’re going. I want to work with you as health chairman.” I am delighted to hear that, but I think we have to see where we go here. If it’s the Mitch McConnell block-everything-just-to-show-we-can approach, then I think we all have to reconsider how we get things done.
SC: If we don’t manage to get rid of the filibuster somehow, beyond executive orders and beyond budget reconciliation, how do we get a Democratic legislative agenda enacted and produce the kinds of wins that we’ll be able to point to in 2022 and 2024?
PM: One of the issues I hear about from people all the time is the child care crisis in this country. I’ve already started talking with a number of Republicans about what it is they need, because it isn’t just Democrats who need child care. In fact, we now have Chambers of Commerce who recognize that this is an issue, and they have influence in the Republican Party. I don’t have an answer yet, but that’s how you move forward in a bipartisan way. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll look at other ways to get it done.
Photo courtesy Sen. Patty Murray’s Facebook page.
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